I became skeptical about the Natural Law tradition several years ago. I started as a sympathetic student and corresponded with prominent contemporary Natural Law scholars like David VanDrunen, Stephen Grabill, Knud Haakonssen, and Paul Helm before beginning graduate studies in intellectual history. I initially considered focusing those studies on how the Reformers contributed to Natural Law theory.
The more I’ve studied Natural Law theory, however, the more skeptical I’ve become. It’s notably inconsistent and uneven in both theory and practice. I find it ironic that there could be so much disagreement, or at least variation of opinion, about what all men everywhere intrinsically know.
That said, I certainly affirm that the Scriptures teach that all men everywhere know about God’s power and holiness and are without excuse, so there must be some kind of “natural law” that is universal. My skepticism is with the Western academic Natural Law tradition that began with Medieval Scholasticism and especially thrived in the Enlightenment. When I read the Natural Law accounts of Thomas Aquinas or Hugo Grotius, to name a couple prominent examples, understood their desire to create a common ground to serve as a basis for society. While that’s a noble goal, it most often it has arisen from a context in which doctrinal disputes had created conflict, and therefore biblical ethics were considered divisive. Natural Law was seen as an alternative, extra-Scriptural morality to which all men everywhere can (should even?) agree to bind themselves, over and against “private” interpretations of Scripture, to provide the foundation for a civil society. This often became an open attempt to marginalize Scripture and move into a post-Christian age, especially in the Enlightenment.
The majority of Natural Law theory advocates have been at least ostensibly Christian, and they have noble goals. But the more I’ve read, the less persuaded I’ve been. Romans 1, which has served as a primary biblical text in support of Natural Law theory, tells us not only that God has made himself known to all men, but also that all men have become darkened, foolish, and futile in their thinking. What hope can have for a universal natural law as a basis for society when men cannot even see it?
Perhaps they can see enough of it for it to work, some Natural Law theorists have offered. That idea seems consistent with history if we sample selectively, and yet the vast diversity of human thought and practice indicates that that which is intrinsically known to us all is remarkably elusive.
(An aside: It seems paradoxical from my viewpoint that VanDrunen is one of the biggest contemporary advocates of both Natural Law theory, which applies equally to all men everywhere, and Two Kingdoms theology, which strictly divides between the “common kingdom” of humanity and the “redemptive kingdom” of the church. I need to learn more to understand how he merges these two major ideas.)
Yesterday evening, Peter Leithart offered some similar thoughts, questioning whether Natural Law is as “static” as it’s cracked up to be:
Paul [wrote]: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood by what has been made. . . . they knew God” (Romans 1:20). Not only do all people know God, but “they know the ordinance of God” and the fact that they will have to pass inspection before Him (1:32).
Still, we need to ask, Who is the “we” who can’t not know God and His requirements? Paul says everyone, but then he goes on to describe a process of darkening and increasing moral confusion – from idolatry, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator; to sexual confusion, lusting after the same sex rather than opposite; to general moral decay, described in excruciating detail at the end of Romans 1. Paul says that people know God, but that they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). Even if every “we” knows certain things, even if there are things we can’t not know, “we” differ in how we act on them; at some points in history “we” are more in the light than in others; in some times and places “we” act on the knowledge we have and at other times and places “we” don’t.
A friend asked me whether revelation is like a light shining in a pitch dark cave, or more like a light that illuminates a landscape that is already half-discerned. The answer is, it depends. And the very question exposes a weakness of some natural law theory: It assumes that knowledge of God and His requirements is a static sum, whereas Paul teaches that “what we can’t not know” ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes.
Thus the need for revelation in addition to whatever all men everywhere intrinsically know. After all, this is the same Paul who wrote in this same book of Romans:
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him <span class=”crossreference” style=”font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;” value=”(T)”>of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear <span class=”crossreference” style=”font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;” value=”(U)”>without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, <span class=”crossreference” style=”font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;” value=”(V)”>‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'”